Lack of education about menstruation is one of the many barriers to achieving adequate menstrual hygiene worldwide.
Earlier this year, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum.
The guidelines include adding menstrual health education for girls and boys in primary schools. This is the first change in the sex and relationship education guidelines since 2000, after recognition by the government that the curriculum was “outdated.”
The new guidelines also include important information on female genital mutilation (FGM) – with focus on the illegality of the practice and support networks available for those affected. This information will be taught in secondary schools, where sex education is mandatory in England.
For all ages, the new guidelines include education on mental health – such as teaching students how to identify symptoms of anxiety in their peers. Students will also explore the risks associated with sexting.
A 2018 report by Plan International UK highlighted the experience of British girls with menstruation, including their existing knowledge of periods. Girls interviewed in focus groups used several negative words to describe their periods, such as “painful,” “uncomfortable” and “inconvenient.” To describe their first periods, girls also used negative expressions like “scarred,” “embarrassed,” “unprepared” and “I thought I was going to die.”
Each country in the UK – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – has its own guidelines for menstrual health education. This meant that not all girls and young women featured in the report had the same experience with learning about menstruation in school.
A 2017 survey found that 1 in 7 girls and young women in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they got their first period. 1 in 4 stated that they felt unprepared for the beginning of menstruation.
Even girls who reported having learned about periods in school mentioned that their education focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. Lessons left out important information about their bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products.
This lack of menstrual education and support doesn’t even take into consideration the added information needed on menstruation as it relates to people who are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.
Both the Plan International UK report and the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative highlight the fact that most conversations about menstruation are heavily gendered. Current education assumes that all who menstruate identify as women and have typically ‘female’ experiences of their periods.
One way to be more inclusive in conversations about periods is to include non-gendered language. For example, we can say “menstrual products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”
Providing young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education will not solve all the problems related to menstruation in the world.
It won’t, for example, address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. It is, however, a good place to begin. Education is needed so that no young person feels scared of dying when they have their first period.